Amid Deep Debate, Israel Tightens Lockdown as Infections Soar

The Israeli government sharply tightened its lockdown restrictions for the next two weeks to try to rein in a galloping COVID outbreak, over the objections of the economy’s stewards and the country’s coronavirus czar.

Just last week, the government imposed its second lockdown since the pandemic began. With daily new infections surging dramatically, the cabinet voted early Thursday to clamp down even harder during a season of major Jewish holidays, taking the unprecedented step of shuttering all workplaces except those deemed essential. Markets slumped.

Communal worship and mass protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are also to be severely curtailed through limitations on movement and gatherings.

If case numbers drop, then the government will consider relaxing the lockdown for the following two weeks, Netanyahu said in a statement outlining the new regulations.

“We have heard from the experts that if we don’t take immediate, tough steps then we will reach the brink of an abyss,” he said.

The tightening, which goes into effect on Friday afternoon, was opposed by Finance Minister Israel Katz and the country’s coronavirus czar, who argued it would unnecessarily harm an already battered economy.

“It was possible to advance steps to curtail the disease without dealing a mortal blow to factories and businesses in the private sector that don’t receive the public and adhere strictly to Health Ministry regulations,” Katz said in a statement, adding his position was supported by Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron.

Economic Imperative

Israel’s benchmark equity index fell 0.7% to the lowest level in more than five months. The shekel slipped 0.2% against the dollar at 1:44 p.m. in Tel Aviv.

A rushed reopening of schools, laxly enforced social distancing and mask wearing, and political wrangling over how to address the disease’s resurgence converged in a health fiasco that threatens to overwhelm hospitals. More than 200,000 people have been infected in the country of 9 million, and over 1,300 have died. A record of nearly 7,000 new cases was reported on Tuesday — up from a low of five in late May, as the country emerged from its first lockdown.

The economy is also paying the price of policy blunders. Unemployment remained stuck around 20%, according to Israeli Employment Service data, even after the first lockdown was lifted. Approximately 110,000 more people have joined the jobless rolls since the new lockdown went into effect on Sept. 18, the Times of Israel reported.

The Bank of Israel has forecast a worst-case scenario of a 7% economic contraction this year.

Local media reported a heated debate among ministers over whether to ban the protests. Netanyahu has argued, without proof, that they’ve been a major vector of virus spread. Ministers from a rival party accused him of trying to engineer a hermetic lockdown to quash the demonstrations, the Ynet website reported.

While the protests have focused largely on Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while under indictment for corruption, it was despair over the economic fallout from the virus that served as tinder. Only 27% of Israelis recently surveyed by the Israel Democracy Institute trust him to lead the effort against Covid-19, down from a high of 57.5% in early April, when Israel’s assertive response to the early months of the outbreak was being lauded at home and abroad.

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